By Alanna Gazelle Tyler
Darkness surrounded me high in the Nepalese Himalayas as I slid down the obscured path made slippery with freshly fallen leaves. I hoped that the faint sound I heard in the distance could be human, or at least not the wolf that my mind was telling me it could be. I was quickly learning to trust my feet to land precisely where they needed to go and my ears to hear the reassuring sound of my trekking partner ahead. My will to live was teaching me how I could get by on little sleep and very little nourishment when I had to. But sometimes panic sets in, like it did for me that day in November of 2009 when I found myself scurrying blindly down a moonlit trail with my friend, Siddartha Lama, somewhere near Ginesh Himel.
It hadn’t set in earlier in the day when, for the past 18 hours we had been rationing 200 milliliters of water between the two of us. Nor had it set in when we had to drop our packs off a 10-meter high dry waterfall and then climb down after them, using only our hands, without any ropes or safety equipment. No, I started to feel the fear rise up in my stomach when I asked Sid, “What is that howling noise I hear nearby?” And he answered a little too honestly, “Oh, probably a wolf stalking us.” It was this that got me; the idea that something hungrier than I, after eating only half a can of beans, a mini Snickers bar, and a cup of instant oatmeal in the past 24 hours, might attack me.
When I had told my friends in Shanghai that I was quitting my high-stress job managing the supply side of a start-up and setting off to see Tibet, Nepal and India, they looked at me like I was slightly crazy, but with lots of envy, as they gave me lists of their contacts and places to see in South Asia. Sid was one of those contacts. After three weeks eating mostly a veggie-free diet while in Tibet, I arrived in Kathmandu. While eating in a Mexican restaurant in Thamel with my travel companions from Tibet, I got overly excited about the fresh lettuce garnishing my plate and eating the lettuce resulted in a 3-day perch on my hotel toilet seat.
The first time we met, Sid had finally coaxed me out to have some drinks with his friends. It turns out gin is a good remedy for food poisoning. Or perhaps it was the long-haired motorcycle-riding Nepali who casually asked if I wanted to go on a scouting trek with him instead of my planned excursion around the Annapurna Basin. I have to admit, it was crazy indigenous fascination at first sight for me; and, well, Sid, he’s a charmer.
Tired of living in the concrete cage of Shanghai, wondering why I was working to make a rich man richer, and wanting a taste for the real Nepal, my adventurous side accepted right away, looking forward to the reviving properties of nature. I said goodbye to my Tibet travel buddies and I stayed on in Kathmandu with Sid, buying all the things I would need for the trek, as well as getting a personalized introduction to the city. After a few days we were off; heading to Syaphru Besi, a 12-hour bus ride away, in my first Nepalese bus.
As the aisles of the bus filled up with people and their provisions, they climbed out and onto the roof. Out the window there was a view of arms and legs dangling, and the vomit that rained down on occasion. It turns out, one of the Russian passengers had had a night filled with vodka that he hadn’t quite digested properly, and when his fountain erupted, everyone started puking. I stared intently at the scenery, listening to the music of the bus honking at every turn and the yells of the runner, announcing our destination to any potential passengers, as we careened by. Somehow I managed not to add my stomach contents to the rest of the digestive juices sliding up and down the aisle.
When we approached one of the last towns before Syaphru Besi, Sid asked if I wanted to experience the bus ride Nepalese-style. My audacity again jumped at the opportunity and we clambered onto the top of the bus. As Sid’s legs anchored me to the roof, I felt my tailbone crash into the beveled metal roof every time the bus rocked over a pothole in the semi-paved road. The view was fantastic with the Langtang mountain range on our right and the border to Tibet not too far north; we were surrounded by Himalayas. And as clichÃ© as it sounds, they are breathtaking, awe-inspiring wonders of creation. Worth every bruise on my bum.
The next day we began our trek, and during that first test of my backpacking abilities we climbed up to the town of Tatopani (which means hot water), chatting with women carrying vegetables a long the way, and took a dip in the rust colored holy hot springs, a needed reward after barely making it the last 100 meters. On jelly legs we descended 1,000 meters through Thangbucket, and ascended another 1,000 meters via Gatlang to Paryati Kunda, making our second day a grueling experience for me. We slept near a small lake filled with moss-covered trees, and after a breakfast of nutrient filled zamba (a Tibeten grain) the next morning we climbed over Khurpi Dada pass through a pine forest and then descended into the valley to camp in the village of Somdang.
That night we camped next to the house of a bamboo gatherer and his wife. They welcomed us into their home to eat and sit by the fire. I smiled and tried to follow the conversation in a language I didn’t understand, while Sid asked all about the area and our route for the next day. Even without words, the woman saw I was cold and tired, and offered to heat hot water for me to wash by their fire.
I had been going slower than expected, having never carried a 10-kilo pack before, and certainly not at 3,500 plus meters above sea level. So we had adjusted our route slightly during the first part of our trek and were about to embark on the portion of the trek that Sid had never been on before. Our hosts described the route to us, telling us that there was a shortage of water and to make sure to look for two springs along the way. We thought we had it all figured out, and I was excited about venturing even further from civilization, as we embarked into an uninhabited part of the range.
The sun rising awoke us as usual on day four of our adventure and after eating by the warm fire we broke camp. We started to climb out of the small valley on a freshly dug road, which turned into a steep trail quite quickly. Just before the top of the pass we crossed a small stream, the first water point our friends from the night before had told us about. Here we stopped and cooked a lunch of ramen noodles and filled our water bottles before continuing, not knowing it would be the last time we would find water for almost 30 hours.
At the top of Pansang Pass there was a small summer village of stone houses providing cover from the wind as we took a quick bathroom break. We climbed out of the pass and onto the ridge, which we would be walking on for most of the day.With the Mansalu Range to the west, Giesh Himel to the north, and the Langtang Range to the east, we were surrounded by some of the most astounding mountains in the world. But I didn’t notice them at all, as I was exhausted and could only concentrate on carrying my pack.
As evening broke we came to a saddle with a junction in the path, and we had to make our first decision. One direction descended to the left, and the other climbed to what looked like the top of the pass. We climbed upward and shortly came to another split in the path. We were losing light, water and energy. I hoped we could make camp as soon as we found the next spring. We chose the left path and scrambled through a stunted rhododendron forest. I tripped over the roots of the plants, as it became harder and harder to lift my boots at the end of the long day. Finally, as the sun was about to set, we came to a clearing and climbed onto a slab of rock. In the Buddhist tradition, Sid tied prayer flags at the top of the pass, thinking it was the high point in our journey. Our host the day before had instructed us to look for water after descending from the pass, and, as we scrambled downward, we were happy to see a small pond in the distance.
When we arrived it was clear that the water was putrid, but seeing only a steep trail disappearing into the dark, we decided that our best bet was to camp there for the night. We lit a fire to keep off the chill, set up camp and then tried to strain the dirty water through two of Sid’s spare t-shirts. With every dip of the pan into the pond my fingers became stiffer and colder. The t-shirts were not making the water any more drinkable and finally Sid decided it was too much of a risk to use. We decided to make do with sharing a can of beans for dinner, the only thing we had that didn’t require water for cooking. I didn’t sleep much that night as the wind whipped through the tent, chilling me to the bone.
I woke up the next morning tired, hungry and cold, sipped a bit of our remaining water and set off. We had only 200 milliliters left between us, and finding more was becoming urgent. As we descended, the bamboo rhododendron forest closed in around us, swallowing any remnants of a trail. We climbed back out to above tree line and tried to find the path again. No success. Once more we pressed our way through the bamboo cage, exerting more energy than I knew I had, slipping down the steep slope, using the stalks to repel when it was too precipitous to keep myself from falling. Stumbling upon a dry riverbed Sid decided it was our best option for continuing, without the need to squeeze through the tangle of the forest, and we hoped that eventually the dry river would become a wet one.
The walking was easier and I pushed myself to keep up with Sid, not caring about the pain of carrying a pack, ignoring the hunger in my belly, just going forward with sheer adrenaline pumping from the will to survive. Suddenly we came upon a steep drop in the riverbed, what would have been a 10-meter high waterfall in the rainy season. We tried to walk around, but the banks were too steep. Our only option was to drop our packs over the edge and climb down, hand over hand, over the slick mossy rocks that were usually covered by torrents of water. Not stopping to think about the possibilities, I quickly followed Sid down the steep cliff, picked up my pack at the bottom and kept going down the dry riverbed. It was afternoon now, and we had eaten almost nothing, and only sipped capfuls of water every few hours. We had to keep going until we found water.
A while later we came upon a pool of somewhat clean rainwater. Sid drank right from the puddle while I stared at him with envy that was on the verge of turning to hate as I waited 15 minutes before my iodine tablets kicked in. I drank that cool, fresh water with an urgency I had never felt before, and ate my instant oatmeal like manna, greedy to fill my empty stomach.
We were still lost, but we had food in our stomachs and water to revive us and give us the little extra push to go on. Our dry river turned into a live one, and in the later part of the afternoon we found a path. After making sure our water bottles were filled to the brim, we followed the path away from the river. We kept pushing hard even as the sun set because we needed to find our orientation, and we had no good place to camp.
Then the howling started. And the fear kicked in as I scampered even faster down the path, realizing there were wolves stalking us, understanding that my feet could tread just as well without my eyes as I tried to keep up with Sid. I was afraid to be left alone.
As we entered a clearing it looked like there was a fire flickering in the distance. And, again, we heard the welcome sound of flowing water. After dropping his pack, Sid ran toward the fire to ask the campers where we were. It was the longest 15 minutes of my life, realizing that one of us could have fallen and gotten hurt, or actually died. As I approached the campfire my adrenaline started to slow down and as my mind went over the events of the day I realized that the human body can push itself to limits beyond what you think you are capable of when you want to survive.
We camped that night next to the bamboo gatherers who told us how to find the road where the bus would pass, finally secure, un-lost, un-thirsty, un-hungry.
It was a 12-hour walk out to the road the next day down steep paths, my body giving out, sliding most of the way on my bottom. I didn’t have to pretend to be strong anymore, the push to survive was over, but our trek was not. That last day was harder for me than the previous, because there were no unknowns, only a goal that was physically and mentally tougher than I thought I could handle.
I learned about my own humanness over those few days, how much I wanted to live, and how far I could push myself to live. I hadn’t stopped to appreciate the amazing mountain-scapes before we lost our way, worrying only about making it to the end of the day, so I could remove my pack. Fear had overtaken me for a moment, trapping me in a narrow reality, much like I had felt ensnared in the corporate maze before. Now, I continue to travel, reviving my wonder in the beauty that is our world, living in the simplicity of the moment.
Alanna Tyler has the soul of a gypsy, and as such, has been traveling around the world for the past two and a half years after living and working in Shanghai for four years. Currently she finds herself in Mexico in search of women artisans who preserve both their cultural traditions and their families through their art. You can find stories about her travels and the women she meets along the way atÂ Khorra, a fledgling community of women who love to travel, and do it responsibly.
Himalayas: Ajay Tallam
Kathmandu Nepal: Wonderlane
Nepal Bus: poida smith
Nepal Women Carrying Hay: Cheryl Marland
Trekker Amidst Prayer Flags: Chris Walker
Himalayas River: Steve Hicks
Himalayas View: Alosh Bennett